|N THE EVE OF JEAN CALVIN’S 500TH BIRTHDAY, I WAS DAWDLING over a pasta salad in the cafeteria of the University of Geneva, listening to the patter of the local patois, and imagining a city eager to celebrate its most famous resident.
I started with a tourist’s pleasure at the broad Midwestern accent wafting from the table not 10 feet away as a fresh-faced teenager enthusiastically discussed his afternoon plans with two friends. Emblazoned on his rumpled T-shirt was the name of the moment: “CALVIN.”
I imagined a West Michigan homestead, a conservative Reformed family, possibly a church youth group sponsoring one of its own to be in Geneva for the historic celebration. I pondered the kind of spiritual commitment that would cause a young man to wear a name like “Calvin” on his chest in an age when so many react negatively to the story of the great Reformer.
And then he moved his arm, and the whole message became clear: “CALVIN KLEIN JEANS.”
Speaking of things diametrically opposed to each other . . .
All around the globe, Christian congregations will be pausing this summer to note the July 10 quincentennial of the birth of one of Protestantism’s most powerful and controversial proponents. More than 75 million Christians belong to churches termed “Calvinistic”; millions of others worship in churches that align themselves at least in part with the Reformer’s key teachings about grace, salvation, and personal responsibility.
Calvin’s birthday is the virtual midpoint of a 50-year span that began in 1983 with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth and will swell to crescendos with the coming anniversaries of the German Reformer’s 1517 posting of his 95 theses and the 1530 Augsburg Confession. While Calvin himself has usually been grouped in the “second wave” of the Reformation—after such figures as Luther, Bucer, Bullinger, and Zwingli—few would doubt that his enduring legacy exceeds that of all the others combined.
To Calvin we owe our model of bringing the totality of Scripture to bear on each point of belief, and a vigorous embrace of both Testaments as the Word of God. His clear, rational exposition of Scripture, illustrated in his justly famous Institutes of the Christian Religion and many printed sermons, provided a foundational framework for Protestant teaching, preaching, church organization, publishing, and even devotional life.
To Calvin we also owe a renewed understanding of the sovereignty of God and His activity in human affairs, as well as a model for the church’s interaction with the state that, for good and ill, has profoundly influenced the course of Western European and American history. The national stories of Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, and the British colonies of North America that ultimately emerged as the United States were dramatically shaped by the ideas emanating from a Geneva parsonage. Kings were deposed, revolutions erupted, wars were fought, massive revivals emerged, and missions were launched because of the vigor of this man’s thought.
Adventism, as a fully Protestant and Evangelical faith, shares in the important legacy Calvin left to Western Christianity, even where we note our differences over Bible truth. We underline the importance of the human will in choosing to accept the gift of salvation where Calvin underscored the choice of God in determining human destiny. Because of our understanding of free will, we also disagree with Calvin’s conclusion that a person destined for salvation cannot finally fall away from faith, for Scripture and experience teach us the painful freedom that God allows all His creatures. We worry, and rightly so, at the models of church/state engagement that have emerged from Calvin’s teachings, for in too many cases they have violated the liberty of conscience God gave to every human being.
The anniversary of Calvin’s birth reminds us yet again that God’s truth is always in motion—always pushing forward toward the day when we who now see through the glass darkly will see with greater clarity the love and goodness of our Lord. Like all milestones, both the man and his birthday are meant to be passed and moved beyond in the church’s journey, even as we pause to thank the Lord for one of His most remarkable servants.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.